Alzheimer's Disease

The most common form of dementia

Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative condition that affects the brain, causing permanent changes to a person’s memory, thinking, and behaviour. The symptoms are mild to begin with but usually get progressively worse over time.

The disease damages and kills brain cells, affecting the connections between healthy nerve cells that allow the brain to send messages.

The damage to brain cells is suspected to be caused by abnormal deposits of proteins in the brain, which form amyloid plaques and tau tangles. These deposits begin in the area of the brain responsible for memory (the hippocampus), but spread to other areas of the brain as the disease progresses. As Alzheimer's disease affects each area of the brain, certain functions or abilities are lost.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia in Australia, accounting for 60 to 70 per cent of cases. Most people who develop Alzheimer's disease are over 65 years of age, however it is possible for Alzheimer’s to start in people as young as 30.

Early symptoms

It is thought that changes start to take place inside the brain well up to a decade before symptoms begin to appear.

A person with dementia may or may not notice the symptoms initially. The person’s relatives or friends may be the first to sense changes are occurring.

Symptoms include:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life, such as asking for the same information repeatedly, forgetting significant dates or events, or an increasing need to use reminder notes or other aids to remember things
  • Trouble planning and problem solving, such as not being able to follow a recipe used many times before or not being able to concentrate on tasks involving numbers
  • Problems with daily tasks such as forgetting how to get to the local shops
  • Confusion with time and place such as feeling disoriented or not being able to grasp something that isn’t happening right now
  • Problems with vision such as depth perception while driving
  • Forgetting words such as being unable to carry on a conversation, or calling everyday things by the wrong name

It is common to experience a slowing of mental responses and memory as we age, however if these symptoms start to affect everyday life they need to be investigated.

Memory-related symptoms can be caused by a range of illnesses and conditions, including depression, mild-cognitive impairment, and some medications. It’s important to see your doctor to get a firm diagnosis, as the memory loss could be caused by something that is easily treatable.

Progression

Each person with Alzheimer’s disease will have a different experience of the illness, as symptoms can vary from person to person, hour to hour.

Middle stage Alzheimer’s disease
As the disease progresses, the early stage symptoms will get worse, and new symptoms will appear as the disease moves into different parts of the brain.

Symptoms may include:

  • Inability to recognise some people including family and friends
  • Delusions and paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Obsessive, impulsive and repetitive behaviour
  • Increased confusion, such as getting easily lost
  • Increased problems with speech and language
  • Mood changes, including frequent mood swings

During the middle stage of Alzheimer’s the person will usually start to need help with their personal care such as showering, dressing, eating, and other everyday tasks. They may also benefit from respite care in the home, day respite centres, or temporary stays in an aged care facility using residential respite care.

Late stage Alzheimer’s disease
In the last stage of the disease, the person will become increasingly reliant on care as the disease attacks the remaining parts of the brain.

This stage of the disease may be particularly distressing for both the person living with Alzheimer’s and carers / family.

Symptoms may include:

  • Problems eating and swallowing
  • Requiring assistance to move around or change position
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Incontinence
  • Inability to communicate
  • Severe short and long term memory loss

At this stage, the person will require full time care. Some people move into a special dementia wing at a residential aged care facility while others may continue to live at home with extensive support.

Causes

Research is continuing into the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, but the current thinking is that there are many contributing factors, including environment, lifestyle, and genes.

Genetics seems to play a slightly larger role in early onset dementia, which accounts for just 5% of cases. However, having a parent with Alzheimer’s disease does not mean you will get it.

Treatment

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s or any one medication that can prevent symptoms.

There is no strong evidence that alternative medicines, including herbal mixtures, vitamins or other supplements, prevent or delay Alzheimer’s, even those that are promoted as doing so.

There are many dementia strategies that you can use at home to live well with Alzheimer’s disease. These include:

  • Preparing your home
  • Exercising regularly, with a daily walk, stationary exercise bike, or chair exercises
  • Consulting a dietitian to review your meals

Support Services

A number of support services are available to Queenslanders living with dementia, their families, and carers. These include:


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